LAS VEGAS — Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday that any immigration overhaul must include a path to "full and equal citizenship," drawing a sharp contrast with Republicans who have promoted providing a legal status or blocked efforts in Congress to address the nation's immigration system.
"This is where I differ with everybody on the Republican side. Make no mistake, today not a single Republican candidate, announced or potential, is clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship. Not one," Clinton said, adding, "When they talk about legal status, that is code for second-class status."
Clinton's remarks during her first campaign stop in Nevada underscored Democrats' efforts to box-in Republican presidential candidates who have opposed a comprehensive bill including a pathway to citizenship. Congressional Republicans have said the changes must be made incrementally, beginning with stronger border security.
The issue of immigration resonates with many Hispanic Americans, who backed President Barack Obama by wide margins in 2012. Clinton's pitch to Latino voters came as two of her potential Republican rivals, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, have courted Hispanics and talked about ways to overhaul the immigration system while opposing Obama's executive actions last year to shield millions of immigrants from deportation.
Obama's executive actions loom large in the immigration debate. The orders included the expansion of a program protecting young immigrants from deportation if they were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Another provision extended deportation protections to parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents who have been in the country for several years.
Twenty-six states, including Nevada, have sued to block the plan, and a New Orleans-based 5th Circuit Court of Appeals panel heard arguments on the challenges last month. A ruling is pending.
Clinton said she supported Obama's executive actions and said she would "defend" them against Republican opposition while seeking ways to expand them if elected president. Her message was aimed at so-called Dreamers, young people who have been protected from deportation by Obama's executive actions.
"I don't understand how anyone can look at these young people and think that we should break up more families or turn away young people with talent," she said. "So I will fight for comprehensive immigration reform and a path to citizenship."
Clinton also said she was worried about the use of family detention centers to hold women and children caught up in the immigration system, which activists have said is inhumane.
Her framing of the immigration debate has been closely watched by Latinos as Obama has struggled to pass reform legislation through Congress. And her remarks were received enthusiastically by immigration advocates.
"She called immigration reform central to her campaign and took a series of positions that will make Republican heads explode and Republican candidates shudder," said Frank Sharry, the founder and executive director of America's Voice, an immigration advocacy group.
Clinton has been tripped up by immigration policy before. During the 2008 primaries, she initially vacillated on and then opposed allowing immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to obtain driver's licenses. Her campaign said last month she now supports state policies that allow driver's licenses under those circumstances.
Last summer, Clinton drew grumbles from immigration advocates when she said unaccompanied minors from Central America should be sent back to their homes. In the fall, some young Hispanics heckled her at a few campaign events, urging her to pressure Obama to issue the executive orders.
Preparing for a debate over immigration, Republicans have sought to portray Clinton as opportunistic on the issue.
"Obviously she's pretty good at pandering and flipping and flopping and doing and saying anything she needs to say," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said during an event with Hispanic Republicans in Denver.
Lis Smith, a spokeswoman for former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is considering a Democratic challenge, said O'Malley defied both parties when he opposed sending the Central American children back. "He was criticized for that position, but leadership is about forging public opinion, not following it," she said.
Seated in the library at Rancho High School, which has a predominantly Hispanic student body, Clinton heard from several young immigrants, most of whom came to the U.S. as children and received legal status under Obama's executive action. Many said they were worried about their families and work opportunities.
Betsaida Frausto, the top-ranked student in her junior class at Rancho, said she hoped to attend Yale University and study for a medical degree. But she said she worries that her uncertain status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program would prevent her from working after graduating.
Juan Salazar, a native of Guadalajara, Mexico, who crossed the border at age 7, said he struggled to find work before starting a pool cleaning company with his father after receiving work papers through the executive actions. He said he fears that his father, who remains undocumented, could end up being deported.
Associated Press writers Lisa Lerer in Washington and Nicholas Riccardi in Denver contributed to this report.
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